Hundreds of Sunmount staff remain unvaxed as deadline approaches
TUPPER LAKE — The employment of hundreds of Sunmount staff hangs in the balance as the deadline for them to comply with a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate nears.
State Office for People With Developmental Disabilities Communications Director Jennifer O’Sullivan said 63% of staff at Sunmount, a OPWDD facility in Tupper Lake, are vaccinated. This means 37% of staff there have to get at least their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine before Dec. 5. Right now, unvaccinated staff are able to continue working under the state’s vaccine mandate by submitting to weekly COVID-19 testing in lieu of getting the vaccine, but this new federal mandate does not allow for that to continue.
“OPWDD’s goal is compliance, not discipline,” O’Sullivan wrote. “OPWDD continues to encourage and support staff to get vaccinated in accordance with the federal rule. Staff who have failed to comply with mandates, however, may be subject to appropriate discipline.”
Village Mayor Paul Maroun, who sits on Sunmount’s board of visitors, said people who do not meet this deadline will likely be put on administrative leave without pay.
Maroun said there are currently approximately 1,200 staff working at Sunmount. He said there’s already staffing struggles there — as is, Sunmount could use around 50 more employees.
The new federal mandate from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services requires everyone working at Intermediate Care Facilities, like Sunmount, to be vaccinated to work with clients.
Staff at any facility that receives Medicare or Medicaid funds, as Sunmount does, have to be vaccinated.
“We get millions of millions of dollars in federal aid,” Maroun said. “It’s something that’s got to be.”
“I know there’s some that don’t want to take it,” he added. “But this is a federal law. … I am begging everybody to get the vaccine.”
“It is critical that staff adhere to this guidance so that people with developmental disabilities who call Sunmount home can continue to be safely supported,” O’Sullivan wrote in an email.
Maroun pointed out that developmentally disabled residents of Sunmount often have weakened immune systems.
A New York vaccine mandate for state employees took effect Oct.12, 2021, but gave employees the option of being subject to mandatory weekly testing in lieu of showing proof of vaccination.
The new federal mandate does not allow staff to substitute vaccination with weekly testing for COVID-19.
There may be exceptions to the federal mandate granted to staff who have pending requests for medical exemptions. They will not be terminated before a decision is made on their exemption, O’Sullivan said. Some are allowed to delay their COVID-19 vaccination due to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-approved clinical precautions and considerations.
“This is just going to compound the problem,” Maroun said. “We’re going to have less people to do all the work and it’s going to put more strain on everybody.”
O’Sullivan did not respond to a question asking if OPWDD has a plan to address this staffing loss.
“It’s going to mean mandatory overtime for the others,” Maroun said. “It’s not good.”
Maroun said, personally, he’s glad he got the vaccine and feels safer because of it. He said he hasn’t had any adverse effects from it and added that if someone who is unvaccinated has a family member who dies from COVID-19, they’ll probably feel awful.
COVID-19 vaccines are available at most local pharmacies. Franklin County Public Health plans to hold vaccine clinics on every Thursday in December. The majority of these will be in Malone, but on Dec. 30, FCPH will hold a Pfizer booster clinic in Tupper Lake at Holy Ghost Academy, 40 Marion St., from 2 to 6 p.m. This clinic will be for ages 18 and up. FCPH said drop-ins are welcome, but there will be a limited number of doses and priority will be given to those who pre-register.